Onerous Debt: A Burden To Students

by Benjie Oliveros

Shortly upon taking over the presidency of the premier state university in the country the University of the Philippines in 2011, Alfredo Pascual hosted a dinner discussion with the media to respond to questions regarding his policy directions.

When asked whether his administration would impose a tuition increase, Pascual said emphatically that there would be no increase. Well, after four years there really was no increase but the default rate of students who would not apply for the Socialized Tuition System was moved up from P1, 000 ($21.75) to P1, 500 ($32.60) per unit.

When queried about how UP could increase the chances of students from public schools of qualifying in the state university, considering that with the deterioration of the education system, students from public schools are being eased out by students from private schools who get higher scores in the UP College Admission Test, Pascual said he would encourage representatives of Congress and local government officials to invest more in their public school system. What ever happened to this, nobody knows except Pascual.

When asked about what his administration would do to make UP more affordable for the poor, considering that the P1, 000 ($21.75) per unit rate then was already steep for minimum wage earners, Pascual said he would beef up the student loan system in UP.

This policy reveals his neoliberal mindset. In the 1970s, when the neoliberal policies of liberalization of trade and investments, deregulation of the economy, and privatization of public services and the balanced budget regime were imposed, countries that were subsidizing their education system began cutting back budgets and subsidies for education.

For basic education, the voucher system was introduced, where students who could no longer be accommodated in public schools were provided with fixed amount vouchers to be used in enrolling in private schools that would accept these. Also charter schools, which are a hybrid of public and private schools came into being. Charter schools charge no tuition and receive subsidies from the state, but have Boards comprised of teachers, parents, and community representatives, with the mandate to frame their own curriculum and raise their own funds to fill the gaps in the subsidies. Charter schools could also have their own policies and processes for student admission.

Tertiary education was no longer subsidized, or if at all, public colleges receive very minimal subsidy. This sent the costs of tertiary education to skyrocket.

According to the article How Much Does It Cost to Study in the US published by topuniversities.com, there is still an additional $4,000 to $5,000 to the cost if transportation and other living expenses are factored in. Prestigious public universities such as the University of Michigan charge as much as private universities amounting to $41,906, plus $10,246 for room and board, and $1,048 for books and study supplies.

So American students, except the rich ones, wanting to take up tertiary education need the support of their parents, to avail of scholarships, and contract student loans. In addition, they need to work for their living expenses.

An article published by Truthout Haunted by Student Debt to the Grave written by Mary Swig revealed that 41 million Americans are saddled by student loans. The problem is so grave that social security payments of retirees have been garnished to pay this off. Around 706,000 households headed by persons 65 years and older are still paying their student debts amounting to a total of $18.2 billion in 2013, a 650 percent increase from the $2.8 billion debt in 2005. Of these, 191,000 households have already defaulted on their payments.

According to the same article, there is now a growing movement in the US calling for tuition-free or low cost public higher education. There is also a call for a student debt jubilee.

The Philippines is not yet at that point. In fact, we are just moving toward the US model, through the K+12 program of the Aquino administration. The cost of tertiary education is already rising annually because of increases in tuition and other fees as well as living expenses, transportation, books and school supplies.

On the other hand, the government budget for subsidizing the cost of tertiary education per student has been decreasing. (While budgets of some state universities and colleges may have nominal increases in 2016, these were due to increases in the budget for personnel services, while the budget for maintenance and other operating expenses, capital outlay and infrastructure development suffered drastic cuts.)

UP would suffer a P2.2 billion ($47.8 million) budget cut, and yet students are already suffering from a severe lack in affordable dormitories and class availability.

State universities and colleges would then have no choice but to increase the tuition and other fees being charged to students. In turn, the increases in the cost of education in state universities and colleges would encourage private universities and colleges to increase their tuition and other fees more.

The increases in the costs of tertiary education would skyrocket with the full implementation of the K+12 curriculum. Universities and colleges would take the cue from Education Sec. Bro. Armin Luistro who has already been saying in interviews that with K+12 there is no longer a need for students to take up college since they would already be employed (as workers and technicians of course). Also Commission on Higher Education Chairperson Patricia Licuanan was also quoted in reports saying that “We don’t think that every student really should go to college.”

This points to the policy direction of the government of further cutting subsidies for tertiary education.

If the Filipino people would not fight this, higher education would soon become a privilege. And students wanting to take up tertiary education, but do not belong to wealthy families, would have to contract debts. Consequently, with the meager salaries and wages in the country, more and more households would be saddled with student debt until the country reaches the point where the US is now.

Then, we would again be campaigning for free or low cost higher education just like what students in the US and Europe are doing now.

Then, we would be saying what Mary Swig has written in concluding her article.

“Nobody should be deprived of an education because they don’t come from a wealthy family. And nobody should be subjected to onerous debt because they dared to dream and desired to learn.

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